In the New Testament the noun for "leaven" is zume [zuvmh] and the verb for "to leaven" is zumoo [zumovw]. The noun occurs eleven times, and the verb four times. There are, however, really only three distinct uses of "leaven" in the New Testament.
The first occurrence is in the parable of the leaven ( Matt 13:33 ; Luke 13:20-21 ). This parable teaches that the reign of God is like what happens when leaven permeates a batch of dough. Jesus' point is that the small, insignificant beginnings of God's reign in himself will one day be great. Although the parable does not describe how this will happen, it alludes to Jesus' future reign as the Son of Man.
The second occurrence of "leaven" is Jesus' warning to his disciples ( Matt 16:5-12 ; Mark 8:15 ; Luke 12:1-12 ). Mark ( 8:11-15 ) presents Jesus' warning following the Pharisees' questioning of Jesus about a sign from heaven. After Jesus' curt statement that no sign will be given to this generation, he and his disciples sail across the Sea of Galilee. In the boat Jesus warns them about leaven, really meaning the attitude or perspective of the Pharisees and Herod. In the ensuing discussion ( 8:16-21 ) it is apparent that the attitude that Jesus is warning about is that of blindness toward his identity as the Messiah. He repeatedly asks them, "Do you still not understand?" ( 8:21 ). And significantly, after Jesus performs a second remarkable process miracle of Jesus' healing the blind man (vv. 22-26 the first was 7:31-37 ), Peter "finally" confesses that Jesus is the Messiah ( 8:27-30 ). For Mark, then, leaven stands for the obdurate refusal to perceive that Jesus is the Messiah.
Matthew ( 16:1-6 ) presents Jesus' warning in the same context as Mark, but brings out some distinctive nuances. Matthew records that Jesus' response to the questioning of the Pharisees and Sadducees included some symbolic discussion about weather and a reference to "the sign of Jonah" (v. 4). Then, in the following discussion with his disciples after they have reached the other side, Jesus warns against the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees. Matthew clarifies with Jesus' statement (v. 12) that the disciples finally understood that Jesus was referring to the teaching (didache [didachv]) of the Pharisees and Sadducees. Matthew does not record either process miracle, but immediately narrates the confession of Peter that Jesus is the Messiah. The way Matthew presents the whole scene, with the explicit use of teaching in verse 12, seems to focus the meaning of leaven in his Gospel on the attitude of the rejection of Jesus by the Pharisees and Sadducees. The meaning is essentially the same as in Mark, but Mark's sensitivity to the struggle of the disciples to perceive Jesus' identity as symbolized in the two process miracles is not present in Matthew.
Luke ( 12:1-12 ) presents Jesus' warning about leaven in the context of his large central section on Jesus' teaching journey to Jerusalem (9:51-19:44). He has just narrated Jesus' woes on the Pharisees and Scribes ( 11:37-53 ) and now describes the gathering of a large crowd. Jesus warns his disciples against the leaven of the Pharisees, which Luke notes is hypocrisy (v. 1). Thus, Luke brings out that Pharisaical hypocrisy is the point of Jesus' warning. Luke then illustrates this with Jesus' words about everything being finally revealed (vv. 2-3). And, significantly, he continues with Jesus' further discussion about the proper fear of God, rather than fearing human persecutors (vv. 4-5). Following this Luke includes Jesus' words about acknowledging him before men (vv. 8-10) and his encouragement that the Holy Spirit will assist them in times of persecution (vv. 11-12). Thus, Jesus' warning about the leaven of the Pharisees in Luke seems to stress preparation for times of persecution.
The third occurrence of "leaven" in the New Testament is found in Paul's letters. In what is probably his earliest letter, Paul cites the proverbial statement, "A little yeast works through the whole batch of dough" ( Gal 5:9 ). This proverb is intended by Paul to cause the Galatians to expel the dangerous Judaizers from their churches. Leaven here symbolizes wrong teaching that destroys true Christianity.
The same proverbial citation and symbolism occur in 1 Corinthians 5. Here Paul is strongly urging the Corinthians to expel the incestuous offender from the church. In the development of his argument Paul includes the statement, "Don't you know that a little yeast works through the whole batch of dough?" (v. 6). He then explains that "Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed" (v. 7). He refers to "the old yeast of malice and wickedness" (v. 8). Paul makes his point that just as at the Passover ancient Israel was instructed to remove any leaven from their homes, so now the church, believing Israel, must remove all sin and evil in order to worship God in the observance of the new Passover of the Lord's Supper. Here, leaven symbolizes sin that defiles the believer and disrupts the church's worship of God. First Corinthians 5:1-8 also reminds us that the Old Testament background (leaven or leavened is used twenty-two times in the Old Testament) and foundational meaning of leaven goes back to the Passover of Exodus 12-13 and the instruction given in Leviticus and Deuteronomy. Throughout the Old Testament, and into the first century a.d., leaven symbolized corruption, defilement, and sin. Hobert K. Farrell
Bibliography. R. A. Cole, Galatians; F. E. Gaebelein, The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 8; L. Morris, 1 Corinthians; R. Young, Analytical Concordance to the Bible.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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[T] indicates this entry was also found in Torrey's Topical Textbook
[E] indicates this entry was also found in Easton's Bible Dictionary
[S] indicates this entry was also found in Smith's Bible Dictionary
Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Leaven'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".